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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ–After dropping off a child from the youth program she ran, a local woman found herself doing one thing during a traffic stop this summer: waiting.
“I was waiting for some sort of explanation. I thought I must have a taillight out or I must have been speeding. I figured it was routine,” said Laura Eppinger, formerly a program associate for the Rutgers-affiliated New Brunswick 4-H youth club.
Eppinger told New Brunswick Today that Franklin Township police officers pulled her over on July 25, shortly after she dropped off a young African-American member of the club near Alice Jennings Archibald Park – the third and last of the members she gave rides to that day after a club meeting at the Unity Square Community Center on Remsen Avenue.
The stop took place on Somerset Street, also known as Route 27, which serves as the border between New Brunswick and Franklin Township, neighboring municipalities in different counties.
“I was waiting for a question about the situation, but instead they asked for me to prove I worked at Rutgers,” said Eppinger, who said it was her first time being pulled over.
Eppinger, who is white, believes racial profiling was the driving force behind the stop.
“I was not issued a summons or informed of any driving or vehicle maintenance violation I had committed,” Eppinger, who has worked for Rutgers University for the past five years and lives in Highland Park, expounded in her letter.
“Instead, these two officers grilled me on the reason I was driving near Archibald Park.”
According to Eppinger, during the stop, the officers said disparaging remarks about the Schwartz Homes public housing neighborhood where she had dropped off the African-American child.
“[Almost] forgetting the offense given against the families and kids who live and work there, the officer’s assessment of a neighborhood is no reason to pull me over,” she added.
“The young people I work with, they care deeply about New Brunswick,” she said, looking back on why she mostly found the confrontation disturbing.
Franklin Township Police Department (FTPD) Lieutenant Philip Rizzo confirmed that the Office of Internal Affairs received a complaint about the encounter and is currently conducting an investigation.
But he said that the department could make no further comment pending the investigation, and Rizzo could not confirm how many officers were involved in the traffic stop. He also said he couldn’t give an estimate on how long the investigation would take because it varies on a case-by-case basis
In a phone interview, Eppinger acknowledged that initially she mistakenly sent her letter about the stop to the New Brunswick Police Department (NBPD) but later clarified that the officers were members of the FTPD.
After showing proof of her employment, she said the officers sent her on her way. In hindsight, she realized she did not get the officer’s names and badge numbers, claiming she was partly “in shock.”
The FTPD responded to confirm it had received Eppinger’s complaint within the day, but told this newspaper it would not offer any further comment. Now, four months later, both Eppinger and New Brunswick Today are still awaiting an update on the investigation.
During the investigation, most of the 4-H club’s efforts came to an end as grant funding dried up, and Eppinger’s position was eliminated.
The club had spearheaded projects geared towards local youth including leadership development, civic engagement opportunities, dance, arts and crafts, science, engineering, sports, gardening, fitness, and nutrition.
“The full-time Program Associate position with New Brunswick 4-H will no longer be funded,” Eppinger told associates in a September 11 email. “In short, this means the New Brunswick 4-H office will close and most clubs and programs will not meet from now on.”